Sunday 4th June 2017 – What next? Pentecost!
Try to imagine you’re one of Jesus’ first disciples. Not necessarily one of the Twelve, but certainly one of the 120 or so that made up the larger group that followed Jesus around during his 3-year ministry. Pick someone who might have been a bit like you: there were working class men, their wives and mothers, white collar civil servants, political activists, possibly some military families, folk who had been brought up in church (well, OK, synagogue), those who had been in trouble, some who had been sexually immoral, till they met Jesus, and some who were still a bit too scared to admit publicly to being followers. Try to imagine yourself in their place.
50 days ago Jesus was executed by the Romans – but on the request of his own people, and, even then, not the (probably) corrupt and self-seeking secular rulers. It was the spiritual leaders who called for his crucifixion; the very people who should have been totally in support of him; the very ones who should have recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah. It had been a catastrophe! At least it seemed like it for a couple of nights. And then, in the roller-coaster ride that you’ve begun to get used to as a follower of Jesus, you heard that Jesus was no longer dead. He’d come alive – even more alive than he’d seemed to be before! Finally, you’d been there when he appeared somewhere and talked and smiled and reassured and explained. And it was all OK again. Although he seemed to be preparing everyone for the fact that he wasn’t going to stay around for very long. And then, just ten days ago, after only six weeks of preparation, he was gone; taken up into the clouds, never to be seen again. Well, not until some far distant point in the future when he has promised to come back and … but that’s a whole other story.
Today, you’re doing what you’ve been doing every day since Jesus left: meeting with the others to pray and worship God, and wait. Yes, wait.
It’s a bit awkward, really. Most of the group doesn’t come from around here. They come from up-country and are unsure how much longer they can stay, because they’ve got homes and families and what-not and while they’re here, they’re sleeping on people’s floors and sharing meals with other families. It’s dragging on a bit. But Jesus said to wait in Jerusalem: everyone was wondering “What next?” knowing Jesus was leaving. And then he said everyone should stay here and wait until they received power to go back out and tell people about Him. He said that the Holy Spirit would come on everyone and then we’d all be ready! And so here everyone is; not quite sure what the hold-up is; not quite sure what’s actually going to happen.
‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit…. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 2.4-8)
The city is mobbed – there’s another big festival going on, ‘Weeks’, or ‘Firstfruits’, or ‘When Moses was given the Ten Commandments’. It’s a bit of a mish-mash, this one. But everyone has come from all over. The tension that was around at Passover has dissipated – even if, amongst the crowds, there’s still a groundswell of talk about Jesus being risen from the dead – although we’ve mostly been keeping our heads down. And so, here we all are. And… Oh! What’s that noise?!
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2.2-4)
Well! That was weird! More wonderful, rather than weird, really.
Back to Riverchurch in 2017, now, looking in from the outside. It seems that the group couldn’t stay contained in the house where they were and they spilled out onto the road. The, “other tongues” that they spoke in were actually the multitude of languages of the crowd of passers-by out in the streets. People from all over the Mediterranean world were in Jerusalem and they were able to understand in their native language – without needing headsets like the French members of our congregation do!
Luke, writing the book of Acts, doesn’t actually say they were overflowing with joy, but I think we can read between the lines and see that. People were accusing them of being what we might call “a bit merry”! We talked about joy last week, and how it is often a glorious, celebrating, laughing, shouting, enthusiastic expression of, “Yes!!! God really is here! Here with us!” I believe this was one of those occasions.
Although they were speaking human languages (as opposed to “the tongues of angels” that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 13 and that we might talk about another time), there were so many different ones that it was a bit of a commotion. But it certainly got people’s attention. Acts 2 goes on to show us that Peter stood up and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus to the crowd. At the end of his preaching, about 3,000 people believed and were baptised – on the spot!
So that’s what happened. That was what we know as the Day of Pentecost. But what really happened? Why do we need to be reminded about it? Does it make any difference to us that it happened?
In reverse order, the answers to those three questions are: yes, it makes a big difference; we need to be reminded because we tend to slip back to “pre-Pentecost” ways of doing things; and what really happened is what we’re going to look at next.
Receiving the Holy Spirit had already happened for some of them, at least, once before: on resurrection Sunday:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ (John 20.19-21)
Those of you who have followed the Alpha Course will remember learning about the Holy Spirit over several sessions. One of the things to note is that he is evident throughout the Bible but that in the Old Testament, before Jesus came, he only comes on specific people, at specific times, for a specific purpose. These incidents accelerate round about the time of Jesus’ nativity and then there is a change after the resurrection.
‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7.38-39)
A few disciples received the Holy Spirit for themselves on Easter Sunday; but even then, he doesn’t seem to have stayed with them. They don’t show the same boldness that they do after Pentecost. It’s only once Jesus has ascended to heaven that the Holy Spirit really comes to take his place.
After Pentecost, though, it’s expected that when someone begins to follow Jesus, they’ll receive the Holy Spirit. Here’s what Peter told the crowd that day:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ 38 Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ (Acts 2.37-39)
When we read the book of Acts, we need to be slightly careful not to jump to conclusions. Acts describes what happened but doesn’t necessarily say “this is what must always happen”. We see that sometimes the Holy Spirit fell in power on people who were seeking – even before they had really made a confession of faith. In Acts 10, Peter is still preaching to a group who have come to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to hear him – when the Holy Spirit comes. They are baptised afterwards. At other times, the Spirit comes after “conversion” and baptism.
In Acts 8, we read that Philip has been preaching in Samaria:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city. (Acts 8.1-8)
But the new believers don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John come from Jerusalem and lay hands on them and pray for them to be filled with the Spirit. Maybe Philip “forgot” that he should talk to them about the Spirit, and didn’t pray specifically for them to be filled when they believed. To an extent, the Church leaders were flying by the seat of their pants – working things out as they went along.
How are we to understand this? Historically, there have been times when the Church has seemingly “forgotten” about the Holy Spirit, too. And then believers who “rediscover” what the Bible says about him seek his infilling and a new wave of Holy Spirit power flows through the Church. It happened at the time of John Wesley, again at the beginning of the 20th century, with the Pentecostal movement, then in the 70s with the Charismatic movement and so on. Part of the problem is that Christians start to rely on their own abilities and resources, on their programmes and projects – and less on the Holy Spirit. And so we lose the expectancy of “What’s next?” We think we know what’s next. And gradually we stop expecting to operate with Holy Spirit power and with the supernatural gifts he gives us to do the work. And so the work slows down.
It seems that the Holy Spirit doesn’t come and fill us automatically. We have to ask; we need to be seeking his help. It does seem, too, that the first initial filling of the Holy Spirit at conversion happens more easily if someone else places their hands on you and prays for you. The Bible doesn’t explain why – although we can perhaps infer from the practice that it’s something that is often delegated down from existing believers to new believers. It’s not an obligatory practice, but we see it often in the New Testament.
Over the next few weeks, interspersed with looking at how he helps us grow to be more like Jesus in our character – the different aspects of the Fruit of the Spirit – we’re going to look at some of those supernatural abilities that give us God’s power to carry out his plans – the Gifts of the Spirit that we read of after the day of Pentecost:
Prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, showing mercy, messages of wisdom, messages of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in different kinds of tongues, the interpretation of tongues
(Rom 12.7-8; 1 Cor 12.8-10)
Today, during the worship time, we already put into practice what I’ve been talking about. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. (Eph 5.18)
Just as the instruction not to get drunk isn’t a one-off, but a continuous instruction, so the command to be filled with the Spirit is a continuous one. “Keep on not getting drunk, and keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit”!
If you’ve never really experienced the Holy Spirit filling you before – maybe because, when you started following Jesus, like Philip in Samaria, no-one explained that you should – then maybe you’d like us to lay hands on you and pray for you.